Adventures in Beanland

There are many competing theories for the historical origin of the state name “Maine”. One belief is that it is a derivative of the nautical term “Mainland”, a term in the 1620’s that sailors would have used to distinguish the larger land mass from the scattered coastal islands. On my recent trip to Portland, Maine, upon arrival, my friend Emily (a Maine native) drove me to the eastern promenade to take in the view of the coast. I looked out at the Atlantic with its strips of islands that stretch away like shredded cheese drifting on hot soup (it was a cold day) and I could very well imagine the use for that nautical term. The panning seascape included diving seagulls, a cheery lighthouse, and passing boats. Behind me stood old new England homes with squid-ink colored shutters and bushy green front-door wreaths. The air that filled my lungs was clean as the vapors from a natural spring. I felt like one of those invigorated youths in Norman Rockwell’s depictions of New England.  Emily and I got back into the car. We watched a little troop of intrepid sledders barrel down a nearby hill and then we took off for our own day of winter activity: lobster rolls, snow-shoeing, a visit to the marina, and tea by furnace-side.

the coastal islands around Portland

coastal islands

Norman Rockwell Print, State of Maine: Winter c.1960s

Norman Rockwell Print, State of Maine: Winter c.1960s

 

The following day Emily and I went to a wonderful little seafood spot called Eventide. Sitting at the bar, dressing our oysters with shaved horse-radish ice and fresh lemon, I asked her who some of the big employers are in Maine. She replied “Well, Bean’s of course” referring to L.L. Bean, the purveyors of all things adventure, the perpetrators of decades of catalogue fatigue. I looked around. Not exaggerating – everyone in the joint was wearing those signature bean boots. Was it a rite of passage? A code among Mainers? I was intrigued. I asked her to tell me more about the Bean flagship in Freeport. “It’s open 24 hours. Should we go at midnight?” she said with a mischievous smile.

 

Em's boots

Em’s boots

 

A 24 hour store is an aggressive retail strategy designed for aggressive consumers. I might expect it in New York, but in Maine? In Manhattan for years I braved sharp elbows and hipchecks at crowded sample sales; I waited in preposterous lines on bitter cold days for limited edition designer collaborations; I witnessed corporate meetings rescheduled when executives wanted to be at their desks for a particular Gilt sale. Yet I knew of no store in Manhattan staying open 24 hours, 365 days a year!

We decided I needed to see this citadel with my own eyes.

The following day we drove to Freeport to experience the Bean Flagship. Like Disney Land, where Mickey greets you at the doors, here a two-story bean boot awaits your arrival. Just like Mickey, people take pictures next to the boot before entering Bean-land.

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This exaggerated three-dimensional boot, I believe, is meant to ready your conscious for the strange and overwhelming experience that awaits – the experience of jumping into a world that has previously only existed to you on the flat, one-dimensional pages of a printed catalogue.

To see the massive amount of space that all that endless adventure gear occupies is surreal. In print, the assortment feels manageable because you skip to the sections you want to shop. In live-action, it’s an impressive if not dizzying assortment of soup to nuts: maple syrup, electronics, canoes, pajamas. The Bean flagship features multiple coffee shops, a bookstore, pet supplies, home furnishings, instructional classes, a company history section, and a Natural History Museum-worthy set of wilderness dioramas with taxidermy large-scale mammals. And as though that’s not enough, across the street is an L.L. Bean outlet.

Em was right: there are no locks on the doors. It’s simply always open. This is very accommodating to spontaneous adventurers: what if you want to go stargazing late at night and need a mummy-shaped sleeping bag for subzero temperatures? Or fly fishing early in the morning and you realize you’re out of nymphs? The longer I was in the store, the easier it was to dream up abundant last-minute adventures I might wish to embark on. Dogsledding? Cycling? Archery? I even found myself clutching a men’s flannel shirt and a buffalo plaid bomber hat as I browsed through the store (I decided ultimately, to put them back).

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As Em and I drove back to Portland I contemplated the theory that “Maine” is short for “Mainland”. Whether or not it’s accurate, I decided it should be the version that sticks. It represents the beautiful binary soul of the state: adventure by land and adventure by sea. It’s an orienting term, and Maine strikes me as a place where you want your bearings so you can responsibly and playfully lose them. Expertly-outfitted, properly-geared, bean-bootie’d loss of bearings, that is.

 

Here are a couple photos from my trip…

lighthouse

lighthouse2

beanbirds

streetlamps

cityhall

boats

boats 2

lobsters

decorations

lobster

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